Saturday, 28 February 2015

Sri Ganapati- Tyagaraja Kriti In Dance

Anxious grandparents, parents and relatives were distraught as the child lay in bed. The 4 year old boy suffered an undiagnosed illness. The child was taken to the city from their small village in Thanjavur. Specialists were consulted. Tests and scans revealed nothing. The grandfather, Telugu Pandit of the Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, offered a silent prayer.

 “O Ganesha, my grandson will wear the mask and dance on the Bhagavata mela stage this year. I promise.”

 Soon, the child gradually improved in health. On the sacred Narasimha Jayanti day, the Chaitra full moon rose in the sky. The chorus of bhagavatars began to sing the Ganapati Patra Pravesham dwipada  for the Bhagavata Mela natakam ‘Prahlada’. A young boy wearing the mask of Ganesha danced with firm steps, hands held in Kapitha hasta. He looked around, raised his right hand in blessing to the audience. The bhagavatars and spectators raised their joined hands above their heads and thanked Ganesha for His grace and blessings. The grandfather went on the stage with an offering of coconut, fruit and flowers and circled a flaming camphor aarathi around the dancer. It was indeed his young grandson who trained for a week to debut on the bhagavata mela stage. The vow had cured his grandson. Such is the power of Ganesha! The bhagavatas believe that the dancer who wears the mask of Ganesha or Narasimha is temporarily possessed by their divine spirit and will think nothing of prostrating to the human actor!*1

                Every classical dance form and theatre in India invariably begins with the homage and salutation to the adorable Ganesha. Every performing artiste who steps on the stage silently says a prayer to the elephant faced god who can remove obstacles and ensure a successful performance.

*1 Bhagavata mela Natakams are performed in 5 villages in Thanjavur on the occasion of Narasimha Jayanti. Like the elephant, this ancient form is also on the list of endangered art forms.


The greatest devotees of Ganesha are probably in Maharashtra where a ten-day festival during Ganesh Chaturthi is one joyous swirl of colour, song and dance. The common people in the villages, the labourers, the masters, the rich and the poor join in tumultuous welcome to the elephant-headed deity. Ganapati Bappa Morya pudcha varshe laukar ya! ‘Our dear Ganapati, return soon next year’ the rhythmic chant rises to a crescendo accompanied bykartals and lezims. The folk theatre form of this State is called Tamasha . It comprises music, dance and drama and invariably begins with an invocation to Ganesha. Folk Theatre, classical dance,  and other performing artistes anywhere in India consider Ganesha as a patron of arts who can ensure the success of a performance .

Many years ago, on a family visit to the Bangalore zoo, we were distraught and looked on in horror as a mahout struck an elephant repeatedly on its forehead with a heavy hammer. The memory still haunts me and the pain I felt then is still fresh in my heart. Like the Bengal tiger this magnificent animal deserves to live. The very noble thought of a second gajendra moksham gives one joy and happiness of being able to contribute to such a mammoth cause.

Ganesha and Gaja in Bharata Natyam is  the subject of this post. Taking this quite literally, this feature endeavors to sketch a brief understanding of dance, analyzes a dancer’s mind when she composes dance, and a description of an item on Ganesha. This dance in words or word-pictures will hopefully bring out the glory of Ganesha, his various attributes and stories associated with this adorable deity.

Among animals, the elephant is credited with the unique attributes of intelligence and memory. Ganesha symbolizes these basic qualities that are essential in any performing artiste.

 How valid is the comparison of Ganesha to the elephant? Is Ganesha a realistic depiction of the animal? How does the dancer adapt the mammoth sized animal on the stage? In the jungle, the elephant forages aggressively for large amounts of vegetation to assuage his hunger. He is not easy to train and is known to revolt against his own trainer mahout. The elephant has great strength and is used for heavy labour in timber yards. The grand finale in animal circuses is the elephant act where they are made to perform and dance on their hind legs. A visit to a temple is incomplete without feeding bananas to the baby elephant at the entrance. An elephant ride is the high point in the itinerary of every tourist in India. The elephant is divine. The elephant is regal. The very sight of the elephant, single, in a herd or a hundred of them aligned in a festive caparisoned row, inspires awe.

The grace and beauty of an elephant’s gait is amazing. The bulky form disappears when he jauntily breaks into a run, ears waving like a maharaja’s pankha. The long trunk sways like a willowy coconut palm in a breeze as he turns his head majestically from side to side. In the classification of women in classical literature, Gajagamini is a woman whose gait is graceful like an elephant.

Can a dancer resist such a challenge from Nature? In dance Ganesha is depicted as an adorable, lovable deity. His benign blessings are sought before a child learns the first steps of dance. Traditionally, Ganesha is invoked to dwell in the wooden stick which the child holds as she strikes her first steps. Every classical dance or theatre performance begins with a prayer to Ganesha to destroy the surrounding negative vibrations which may mar a performance.

On stage the gargantuan form of an elephant is aesthetically depicted as dwarfish and with a pot-belly. His enormous appetite is translated into a deity who loves modakam and fruit. The elephant’s graceful gait is an integral part  of every Ganesh vandana in dance.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Aspects of Dance

For those who would like to understand a sophisticated dance form like Bharata Natyam, a few words on the technique would not be out of place.

In Bharata Natyam there are two aspects; nrtta which is pure movement and nritya, the expressive element. The third one called natya uses both these elements to tell a story. Hand gestures, movement of feet, arms and torso, the eyes and in fact, every part of the body is trained to move in coordination according to the basic technique. The face becomes the mirror of the soul, expressing the inner emotions to depict the lyrics. The pure dance movements or adavus are decorative in nature and form patterns around the rhythmic grid of the song. Although they were traditionally not meant for expressing emotions or moods, the modern dancer uses them to enhance the underlying mood. The pure dance sequences are composed keeping in mind the mood of the lyrical statement. For example, if the song is an invocation to Ganesha, the footwork could be flat and heavy with flowing body movements to depict the elephantine grace. The hand gestures or hastas may symbolize Ganesha’s weapons, his fan-like ears or the swaying trunk.

The nritya or abhinaya elucidates the meaning of the lyrics and invariably includes a few anecdotes of Ganesha’s exploits. The underlying mood of the item would be one of devotion and salutation. The language of hastas or hand gestures of Bharata Natyam are used tell stories and support expression of emotions. Ornaments and weapons held by the gods are shown through use of hastas. Arala or pataka are used to show his large waving ears. Amukulam in the left hand is used to depict the long trunk. Abhaya hastam to bless, padmakosha to show a fruit or modakam and two kapitha hasta held low on either side of the body indicating the pot belly. 

An invocation to Ganesha is usually sung at the commencement of a concert or performance. Therefore the ragas suitable are Natai, Arabhi, Hamsadhwani, or Saurashtram. Of course, there are hundreds of music compositions on Ganesha in various other ragas. Some of the epithets most commonly used are: Giriraja Suta (son of Giriraja or Shiva), Gamganapate Gananatha, Ganadhipate, Gana Nayaka (leader of the ganas), Gajavadana, Gajamukhana, Kari vadana (Elephant-faced) Gajaraja (Elephant-King) and Siddhi Vinayaka.. Eka dantaa (single tusk), Mooladhara Murti, Pranamamyaham, Pranavakkaram, (Symbolizing AUM), Vighnaraja (Remover of Obstacles) are also commonly used by composers. In a varnam in Todi, Swati Thirunal begins the pallavi with ‘Dani samajendra gamini’ meaning ‘one with a graceful gait of an elephant!’

For the dancer, anecdotes that can be elaborated dramatically are of crucial importance. Well-known stories about Ganesha are depicted dramatically in dance. Parvati created Ganesha from her own body. A brave and strong child, he was asked to guard Parvati’s door while she bathed. Shiva returned home after a long absence and was not aware that Ganesha was his son. Shiva demanded that he be allowed to see his wife, but Ganesha refused entry. Father and son fought fiercely. Before Parvati could intervene, the furious Shiva had beheaded him. Parvati was distraught and pleaded with Shiva to restore him to life. Shiva repented his hasty action, and told her that he can be brought back to life but only with a different head. The first animal sighted was an elephant. So the elephant’s head was placed on the dead boy’s neck and the boy came back to life. Shiva rewarded his son’s bravery and made him the leader of the ganas, his army. He also ruled that all deities and mortals should invoke Ganesha and worship him before commencing a project and on all auspicious occasions. Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya once had a dispute. In some versions the dispute was about who was the elder son. The commonly accepted story is that Narada had in his possession a fruit which would bestow wisdom to one who partook of it. Both Ganesha and Kartikeya wanted it. Their parents Shiva and Parvati decided that the fruit will be the prize given to the one who can circle the Universe first. While Kartikeya took off on his peacock, Ganesha circumbulated his father Shiva and mother Parvati , and saluted them saying, “You, my divine parents, are the Universe.” He was rewarded with the fruit of wisdom and declared the winner. This angered Kartikeya who left his parents and took to the hills. Ganesha broke his tusk and used it as a pen to write the Mahabharata as Vyasa dictated to him. Ganesha the drum player, Ganesha the dancer, Ganesha the remover of obstacles and Ganesha the lover of sweets are also popular with dancers. In South India, Ganesha is regarded as a celibate and therefore does not feature in love poems. In north Indian traditions Vinayaka has two wives Budhi, symbolic of intellect and Siddhi, and the second, achievement. Kartikeya, on the other hand is well-known for his exploits with Valli and Devyani. There are popular padams in Tamil which recount how Kartikeya or Murugan once summoned his brother Ganesha, to frighten Valli into submission by appearing before her as a wild elephant. The North Indian Ganapati is painted vermilion, while in the south he appears to be grey, the colour of sacred ash or vibhuti.

From my experience as a dancer who enjoys composing dance and studying fresh compositions, I believe that it is the dancer who brings to life the beauty of a song. A dancer selects a song from a cross section of hundreds of composers and ragas, several languages and deities. There are many reasons why a dancer selects a particular song. The song probably inspired her when she first heard it. Maybe it is childhood favourite hummed by her mother. Some songs pose a challenge and dancers love challenges. Perhaps the rhythmic structure is exciting. Or is it that the achingly beautiful padam touches a chord in her heart as it reflects the sorrow of her life? It is the abstract, the philosophical, mathematical or emotional illusions portrayed in the lyrics which draw attention. Today thematic presentations depicting social problems, current events, or feminist issues are popular. Dramatic life stories of composers like Jayadeva, Tyagaraja or Swati Thirunal attract dancers like bees to the flowers. One can drink deep and long from their compositions and never be satiated. And every dancer worth her art would surely have composed at least one on the beloved Ganesha.

Once the song is selected, ideally one must study the composer’s style, his life, the general canvas of his works and understand his philosophy of life. Reference points to the context of the lyrics should be noted. Many of Tyagaraja’s kritis are autobiographical. They are a direct reference to events in his life. His saintly life, his single-minded dedication to Rama, his austerity and dignity must be kept in mind. 

The dancer first learns the song, understands its rhythmic pattern, studies the meaning of every word and its connotation, and visualises the scope for anecdotal elaboration. The underlying mood or sthayi bhava is an important element. After serious research into all these aspects, the dancer commences to compose.

Tyagaraja’s kritis have always fascinated me for the tremendous range and emotional content. In 1971 when I first researched the saint’s compositions, I knew that I had struck a gold mine. Here was a treasury of kritis each brimming with navarasas, and with a story to tell. The first kriti I ever undertook to compose was one of only two kritis Tyagaraja composed on Ganesha. Sri ganapatini in Raga Saurashtram was the traditional salutation composed as a curtain –raiser for ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam’, a bhagavata mela natakam by Tyagaraja.*2 This is preceded by dwipadas or couplets which describe the various aspects of Ganapati.

Kariraja vadanundu karpuranibhudu

Girisuta sutudu sangita lolundu

One who is elephant-faced, whose body is white like camphor

Son of the daughter of the mountains (Parvati), connoisseur of music

Ambuja sammavdhya marulu koluva

Jambu phalambula savijoochukonchu

Worshipped by Brahma (one who sits on the Lotus)

One who enjoys the fruits of jambu (and other) tree


*2 Tyagaraja belonged to the bhagavata mela tradition. He composed another musical dance-drama called ‘Nowka Charitram’ on child Krishna’s boat trip with gopis.


Dharmadi phalamula dayastunanuchu

Nirmala hridayudai nirvikarundu

One who rewards the one who follows Dharma

One who resides in the heart of a pure devotee

Sokkuchu soluchu soga suga vedale

Mrokki sevinthumu mudamunarare

He captures our hearts as He comes

Let us all welcome Him with prayers

Every line is a word picture and even as we sing them we can visualize the image of Ganesha whose arrival is awaited by the eager devotees.

Pallavi: Sri ganapatini sevimpare, shritha manavulara

O devotees of pure hearts, worship Sri Ganapati!

Now, very simply, we can analyse each word and see how it is depicted in Bharatanatyam. In a music concert the singer repeats the line several times changing the emphasis on each syllable and introducing new musical phrases. These are called sangatis. Similarly, the dancer uses sanchari bhava to elaborate ideas. The word Sri Ganapati is performed with varying poses each time. For instance:

a)One who wears a snake as a sacred thread, (b)One with large ears and long trunk.(c)One who dances.(d) One who holds a lotus, a rosary,  a gada. (e) One who broke his tusk to write the Mahabharata. (f)One who circled his parents Shiva and Parvati and bowed to them saying, ‘you are the Universe’ Now, give me the prize, the fruit !

The last idea is called sanchari, an elaboration of an idea. The story of his birth would be too detailed and may upset the balance of a short invocatory piece.

Anupallavi:   Vagadhipaadhi supujajala chekoni

                     He (Ganesha) has just now received Brahma’s worship

                    Baaga natim puchu vedalina.

                    Now he comes here dancing gloriously

Brahma can be depicted in many ways. Four-faced One, creator of Vedas, Saraswati’s consort, born from the navel of Vishnu, or One who sits on the lotus, etc. Since Brahma is mentioned in passing, and is not a part of the scene here, we will choose the first two epithets which are direct and simple. Brahma can be shown worshipping with flowers, circumbulating and bowing to Ganesha. It is in the next line that one can elaborate on words like baga natim puchu and vedalina. How does he enter? How does he dance? Imagine a long procession with drummers, nadaswaram players, girls spreading a carpet of flowers, and devotees waving large sacred whisks! And then behold! Ganesha Himself comes dancing with many rhythms swaying His trunk, ears flapping, His large body moving gracefully. The picture is complete when the devotees are shown enraptured by this vision.


                 panasa narikeladi –jambu- phalammula araginchi

 He has accepted offerings of jack-fruit,coconut,and fruits like the jambu

                 Ghanatarmbuganu mahipai padamulu ghallughallana nunchi

The earth resounds with the sound of (Ghall ghall )of his heavy footsteps

                  Anayamu haricharanayuga mulanu Hridyambujamuna nunchi

One in whose heart nestles the sacred feet of Hari

                 Vinayamunanu tyagaraja vinuthudu

With great humility Tyagaraja praises Him

               Vividhagatula dhalangumani vedalina

He who comes dancing to varying rhythms

In the Devagandhari kriti ‘Kshirasagara shayana’, Tyagaraja pleads with Rama to free him from his worries as swiftly as He came to the rescue of Gajendra. This kriti is very popular with dancers as there is an allusion to the well-known story of the King of elephants whose leg was caught by a crocodile while drinking water in a river. Gajendra sent up a poignant prayer to Vishnu who came to protect his dear devotee. The crocodile is in reality an accursed soul. He too gets released at the hand of Vishnu. This indeed is the first Gajendra Moksham!

The Ganesa Kauvuthvam is part of an ancient temple ritual sung usually at the onset of festivals. The Tamil composition has rhythmic syllables interspersed with lyrics that are recited and also set to ragas. A brief excerpt:

 Aru thiru marugane vighna vinayaka

Vinakitta aruliya ganapati jaya jaya thikkitta udarakadan jaya jaya

Thikkita udarakadan kinnam tadhikathudikkai yaanai mugathavar

Tongita kita taka thongutakka devargal ganapati

Tikkta kitathaka thikkitonga ganapati kauthvam

Katrravar vinaiyara ukkkudutham … …..                

The elephant is an important animal in Indian mythology. It is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. The origin, content and imagery of our classical dances are traditionally based on our scriptures and epics. In Buddhists lore, Siddhartha’s mother Maya dreamed of a white elephant just before giving birth to her son. Indra’s vehicle is a white elephant, Airavat. Dance is a divine skill which most gods and goddesses are naturally gifted with. Nataraja is the inimitable dancer and dance acquires its divinity by virtue of being associated with Him. Although he is known as Pasupati, Protector of animals, Shiva ismerciless with asuras who challenge him in the guise of an animal. Mahishasura mardini is one of the items perfomed regularly and religiously by women dancers to portray the power of women. Durga empowered by the gods, takes on a ferocious Mahishasura, the asura in a buffalo form. The demon also transformed itself during the fight into an elephant, Gajasura. One of the popular anecdotes depicted in dance is the Daksha Yagna. Shiva rushes to the yagna after hearing that Sati has immolated herself. Unable to face his fury, the sages create asuras who fight Shiva. Among them is an elephant, whose hide is ripped open by Shiva and worn as an upper garment. The earth trembled and shook as Shiva danced his Tandava after destroying the pride and arrogance of Daksha. Kathakali, the magnificent dance of Kerala, has a poignant anecdote in its repertoire that describes a tussle between an elephant, lion and a crocodile witnessed by Bhima in a forest. The elephant loses to the other two cruel animals. It is not part of any text, but gives the artiste scope to present his dramatic skill.

The time has come for us to face the fact that we are leaving for the future generations a derelict and sparse earth .The flora and fauna which is the balancing factor of Mother Nature is being depleted at an alarming pace. The panda, tiger and the elephant are in danger of extinction. The elephant in Asia and Africa are hunted for their ivory, confined to sanctuaries, or are used for heavy labour. They suffer from lack of care and cruelty at the hands of their owners. As the forests are being axed down, the elephants forage and destroy cultivated crops.

Elephants are killed and elephants kill men. Man and elephant are in conflict everywhere. We must commence an awareness drive for conservation of natural resources, on a war footing. Will the elephant be perpetuated only in dance, literature and art? Will our great grand –children see only skeletons of the elephant in museums?  Then we will be back where we began. Like the cave –men who drew elephant sketches and drawings on the walls of their caves.

 (This article was written a few years ago  for a project that never materialised .  I posted it in my blog in for music and dance lovers )

Natya Yogi Shudhananda Bharati –Ananda Tandavam

Come dance joyously in Thillai, O Nataraja,
Dance in my heart and may my mind overflow with blissful knowledge.

The Yogi
Kaviyogi Maharishi Shudhananda Bharati was a Yogacharya, a prolific poet and author. His life was a kaleidoscope of achievements which added amazing facets to his personality. Born on May 11th, 1897, he attained Maha Samadhi  in 1990 at the age of 95. His intense physical and spiritual power, energy and creativity remained unabated till his last breath.
He was a devotee of Madurai Meenakshi Amman since the tender age of eight. A Nataraja icon with Meenakshiamman as consort accompanied him wherever he travelled in the world to speak to countless devotees. His spiritual search even as a youth lead him to intimately associate with illustrious holy men like Ramana Maharishi, Shirdi Sai Baba, Sri Aurobindo, The Mother, Sri Seshadri Swamigal and Avatar Meher Baba. Initiated into Yoga early in life, he walked from village to village teaching yoga and simple nature therapy remedies for good health.
The Kavi Yogi
It was only recently that I had the privilege of being associated with the extended family of this great Maharishi. Before choreographing dance for his compositions, I read a few books by him. “Natananjali” has lyrics specifically written for dance. Short dance-dramas like Siva -Gowri Natanam, Shakti Natanam, Valli-Muruga Natanam and Rasa Leela are ideal for a modern repertoire as the lyrics are rich with imagery and jatis. From his biography we learn of his life and works. He never believed in establishing an ashram or organising his devotees who can today be counted in thousands scattered round the world. He translated Upanishads, Vedas, Dhammapada, Gita, Koran and Bible into Tamil. A newly discovered manuscript authored by the Maharishi on the art of dance “Natyakalai Vilakkam” was published recently. He was a modern Tamil poet, writing 500 books before he was 50.
He was editor of magazines like ‘Swarajya’ (Tamil), `Bala Bharati’, `Iyarkkai’ (Nature in Tamil), and `Samarasa Bodhini’. The Kavi Yogi's songs have been popularised by the evergreen voices of veterans N. C. Vasanthakokilam, D. K. Pattammal and M. S. Subbulakshmi. The singing brothers (late) B.V.Raman and B.V.Lakshman played a part in propagating the Swamiji’s compositions. The magnum opus Bharata Shakti, (in 50,000 verses) was awarded the first `Raja Rajan Award’ for best Tamil literature, constituted by the Tanjore Tamil University.

The Natya Yogi
His passion for dance comes through in the pieces on Nataraja.  When he was writing a commentary on Ilango’s classic epic Silappadikkaram, he realised the significance and beauty of this scientific art. This was at a time when, he says,” this great art came to be regarded as an intoxicant to one’s vulgar sensual pleasure. I desired to educate people about its aesthetic significance and restore its original status”. He decided to study dance to gain a better understanding of the art. The Kaviyogi was given Natya Diksha by an elderly traditional danseuse well known in her time. He underwent strenuous training in Tandava and Lasya for a year in a small village called Kollumangudi in Thanjavur. His “auto”-biographical book “Experiences of a Pilgrim Soul” (written in the third person) speaks of all the influences in his life. I quote: The Yogi took delight in the art of dance too. He sang songs and danced in delight. His very life was a choreographic representation of his feelings and emotions, kindled by environment. Dance is an aesthetic science of mood, time, and melody. He freely joined holy concerts, ecstatic dances round the lamp (Deepa- pradakshanam) and took part in Bhagavata Melas or holy dance-dramas.’ (Close quote)
Poets are inspired by the elements, by divine insights, by experience and events in their life. In the brilliant lyrics of the piece ‘Ananda Tandavam Purivaye’ one can draw parallels to the trials and tribulations in his life, his passion for Nataraja and dance.
The vast sky is filled with silence.
Let me draw energy from the sound of OM
That shines like a jewel, like the sun in the sky

The sky, the entire Universe in open space is enveloped in silence and the pulsating energy of OHM glows like a jewel. Is it the silence in Bliss or the bliss in Silence that the poet speaks about? For twenty years he observed an oath of silence while staying at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry (now Puducherry). It was here that that vast horizon of knowledge from other countries opened up to him. His mind absorbed the rich legacy of European literature and languages like French and Latin. He translated The Divine Comedy of Dante, the comedies of Molière, Shakespeare, Goethe and the novels of Anatole France, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas. The Yogi wrote several hundred works in English, French, Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Sanskrit; five thousand songs, and fifteen hundred poems in French.
The song ‘ananda tandavam purivaye’ continues...
May the rhythm of the damaru’s OM pulsate in my heart
And energise my entire being!

Scholars have waxed eloquent on the symbolism of the Nataraja icon. The Kaviyogi transforms the symbols into metaphors and figuratively animates the weaknesses of the mind and body.
Let my mind not yearn for those which are obstacles
Remove the ropes of ignorance that coil around me

Desire and ignorance are our greatest enemies. Help me free myself from this O Nataraja!

Destroy the tiger of my destructive anger
Anger in man is described as a tiger. O Nataraja, the Kaviyogi exclaims, destroy the evils of anger inside me as you did the tiger which sprang from the fire!                                                                                 
Tear apart the black elephant of my enormous ego  
Tear apart the enormous ego which envelops me like a shroud. The size of the ego is elephant-like and as difficult to conquer.

Stamp out the evil demon Muyalagan in my heart
Like you stamped on the demon who dared to defy you, stamp out the evil in my heart which rears its head now and again.
 Squeeze the snake of greed in my heart
Greed will destroy me, O Nataraja, help me to strangle it like you strangled the snake and made it your ornament.
Show me the hand which protects
Show me the beautiful smile
Show me the dancing feet
Show me the one Path
Show me the red sky of sunrise (which removes the darkness)
Reveal to me the drama that unfolds in the Universe
Your hand will protect me, your mystical smile and rhythmic footsteps will show me the Path. The dark night of ignorance will break into the red sunrise of knowledge. And the drama that unfolds in the Universe by You may be revealed to me.
Come dance in my heart
Hail Nataraja! My friend!
When my heart is cleansed of all the negativities and made pure what prevents you from making it your dwelling? Come and dance in my heart O beloved Friend!

The Karma Yogi
It is clear that the Kaviyogi’s life was not a bed of roses. Not many understood him. He says in his book: ‘...they scandalised him, tore his poems, burnt his manuscripts, enclosed him in dark rooms, manhandled him ...’ Silence was the magic mantra he learnt at the feet of the Master –Ramana Maharishi at Tiruvannamalai which helped him to endure the foolishness of his fellow-men.
He worked with national leaders like Lokamanya Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji, for India’s freedom. He campaigned against evils of untouchables, liquor and animal sacrifice for rituals. His passion for his motherland comes through in many compositions. Listen to this composition which brims over with love and dream for India:
May this land prosper! May this land be blessed with joy!
Like the moon, like the sun and the infinite ocean
Like the sweetness of milk, honey and fruit nectar
Like the rain -clouds and the crops
Like the body and soul
The sky and light, the fertile soil and the food crops
Like the Yoga of Dance which gives Bhoga (happiness)
(Like all these above are inseparable from each other)
May prosperity and peace be inseparable from this country!
I worship you, my Mother, with an offering of my body, life and soul
Through this Natananjali

Note: This was written for a arts magazine, but was never published, as far as I know.


“There was a time when musicians travelled from Court to royal court to present their art and accept honours. They travelled on foot, bullock-carts, or in a caravan of horse-driven carriages. Setting out at dawn, the first pink and golden rays of the sun would inspire an outburst of raag Lalit. When raindrops pitter-pattered on the cobbled stone path or on the roof of the carriage, the tabla player would playfully counter nature’s rhythm on his drum. Dark, rolling clouds, a clap of thunder, a streak of lightning, dew on the rose, the full moon and the fleet-footed deer inspired immortal poems. Music overflowed and cascaded from the heart of the musician. Artists, lived close to Nature’s magic, reflected the joys and sorrows of our pulsating society, and were moved by political upheavals and war. Today we have traffic jams, pollution and crowded airport lounges for inspiration.”

Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan Saheb, the eminent vocalist of the Rampur Sahaswan Gwalior Gharana has ove fifty years experience in the world of music. Born on March 3, 1931 at Badayun in Uttar Pradesh, the Ustad today represents the illustrious Senia tradition dating back to Tansen. The most revered names of North Indian music glitter like jewels in this family tree.  Ghulam Mustafa Khan is the grandson of Inayat Hussain Khan who was the great grandson of Qutubuddin Khan Sahib the eminent musician of the Oudh court during the reign of Wajid Ali Shah.

Ghulam Mustafa Khan’s father Ustad Waris Hussain Khan initiated him into music and barely five years later, at the age of eight, he gave his first performance in public.
 Ustad Fida Hussain Khan and his son the maestro Nissar Hussain Khan later groomed his prodigious talent into a versatile singer with rigorous discipline and intricate technique. At the young age of 27, Ghulam Mustafa Khan had won recognition and appreciation for his melodious voice that could span four octaves with ease. His performances of classical and light music were numerous.

“ Today, traditional families devoted to music are dwindling”, continues the maestro in his mellifluous voice, his choice of words almost lyrical in quality.”

 Royalty patronised us so that we could devote ourselves to art without a care. But even in the worst of times, a true artist would not give up this spirit. Rakh  ko paani me gul kar pigaye, aur gaana karta rahen. ( the singer would dissolve ash in water to assuage his hunger, but he will not give up singing). Immortal lines of poetry were sometimes born in penury. Great traditions were nourished. A child born into such a family did not need formal education. Music has in itself components like science, mathematics, literature and history. One can derive spiritual guidance from studying music. These were more relevant to the development of one’s personality.”

But Khan Saheb himself was driven by his passion for music to study Ancient Indian Music derived from texts like Bharata’s Natya Sastra, and Matanga Rishi’s Brihat Deshi. The credit of reconstructing Jati gayan from Sharang Dev’s Sangeeta Ratnakara for the first time in 700 years also goes to him . He has recorded these compositions for the national archives.

Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan is a compleat musician. He has not let any aspect of music untouched. He has won awards for music compositions in short and feature films.  He ventured into playback singing for films like Bhuvan Shome, Noor Jahan and Umrao Jaan. He was chosen to act as “Baiju Bawra” and sing in a film shot by a German film company.

His songs in Telegu, Bengali and Marathi were equally famous. One of the earliest musicians to travel abroad, Ghulam Mustafa has since been invited and honoured abroad since 1964.    In 1986 he was conferred Honorary Citizenship in Baltimore and Maryland. Hailed as Juniour Tansen in 1969, he was awarded the President’s Award Padma Shree in 1991. Khansaheb takes great pride in the fact that he has broadcast form All India Radio since 1949 and on Doordarshan since its introduction.     He was given the unique honour of participating in the Twenty-four Hour raga Festival at Paris in 1986.  His numerous CDs and recordings are a reflection of his impeccable lineage.  A felicitation to celebrate fifty years of Khansaheb’s performing career was held in March 1999. The Golden Links Festival brought together many traditional musicians whose families have been linked to his for atleast three generations. His beautiful rendering of Bhajans has an unusual fan in the respected Jeer, Head of the orthodox Ahobila Mutt.  Khansaheb can often be heard singing bhajans of Surdas and Meerabai at the dolotsavam  of the Krishna idol conducted by him in various parts of Mumbai.
Asked to recount an unforgettable event in his life, Khansaheb goes back to 1958 when he first arrived in Bombay. He was invited to sing in the house of one Babubhai Banker, a patron of music.

The audience comprised of heavyweights like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan  Prof. Deodhar and others.The senior tabla maestro Taranathji accompanied  him. He remembers being so inspired by the gathering that for three hours he sang  Behag, Jogkauns, and a thumri in Pilu. His career took off from there as his reputation soared.
A debonair and distinguished persona with the old- fashioned charm and mannerisms of  traditional etiquette, the guru does not believe in aggressive commercialisation of  one’s art. A living legend, he practices the precepts he passes on to his students. Some of his students have brought fame and honour to the Guru. Internationally known singers like Asha Bhosle, Manna Dey, late Geeta Dutt, Kamal Barot, and Hariharan have trained for classical music under Khansaheb. Sonu Nigam, the current heartthrob of Indo Pop and host of the television show “Sa Re Ga Ma”, is honing his talents under the Master.
“He is a teacher with a difference,” says Hariharan, with reverence. “Guruji’s training and voice culture is beyond compare.”    “Papa is father to all his students, not only to us,” say Ghulam Murtuza and Ghulam Qadir , his sons, who are now full-fledged artists in their own right.  “Guruji can make the most difficult phrase sound easy. His anecdotes, parables and pithy shairis keep us rivetted whenever he converses, say Ranjan and his sister Rupa, both beginners and still very much in awe of their legendary teacher.

An artist’s life has an undercurrent of spirituality says Khansaheb. It is important to keep close to one’s roots, culture, religion and Mother Nature to keep our mind and heart young and recharged.

Khansaheb’s spacious apartment is in Bandra, a locality made famous by the film 2personalities and musicians in this neighborhood. The front room is richly carpeted and ta2npura, tabla and other instruments are strewn around. The walls are choc-a-bloc with awards, citations received and photographs of   unforgettable events.    Asked to describe a typical day in his life, Khansaheb is puzzled.    A moment later, his face relaxes , eyes glint with amusement and  his face gleams with a gentle smile.   In the morning it is prayers and riyaz. My sons may come to clear doubts or to learn. Then lunch. Then more music. More prayers. In the evening the students begin to come in for classes. There is music till late in the night, he concludes, laughing.
Note: This candid interview was first published in 'Jetwings' the airline magazine of Jet Airways.

Keep Dance Heritage Alive!

By Indu Raman

Trained in Bharata Natyam from Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra, Chennai (1966-70, Indu has been teaching, performing and composing new repertoire since 1970. Chairman of Tanjore Brahmin temple dance-theatre Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam (1993-2002),   Indu focused her efforts to preserve, promote the art and sponsored performances of  this ancient art in metros, temples, and art conferences. Indu published research papers in art journals and wrote features on music, dance, theatre and film in leading newspapers. Indu Raman was Producer, sponsor, part- choreographer, designer costumes and stage settings, of a new Bhagavata Mela play ‘Sakuntala’ in 2002. Initiated research on Bhagavata Mela and a publication is under way.

The history of art is the history of revivals: Samuel Butler

Keep Dance Heritage Alive

 Is the urban audience is losing its sensitivity and taste for the rich, slow and elaborate theatre which is precious dance heritage?  Is this snob attitude adversely affecting the existing traditions causing them to hit the heading –for-extinction list? Ritualistic and classical theatre of the older civilizations like Greece, India & China are losing out rapidly to dazzling slick proscenium presentations of the modern entertainment world.

In the name of sophistication, influenced by snobbish city attitudes, the traditional performers are being influenced to forget their roots and heritage. Are we losing our rich cultural roots and identity?                  

How important is preservation of ancient theatre traditions? How do we ensure it is not lost to posterity? We must not forget that modern presentations are based on  (a) tradition (b) are transient and (c) are not expected to last for centuries.

Time is running out……..

1. Introduction to Indian Theatre

The ancient civilization of India is recognized as highly developed and sophisticated beyond our comprehension. Theatre is the traditional repository and the treasury that preserves and integrates rituals, rites, folk cultures, and customs. Theatre is the throbbing pulse of countryside India where there is a song and dance for everything from the birth of a child to marriages, harvest, seasons, and even death. The panorama of Indian Theatre is vast and complex and fall into various genre like classical, folk, devotional, and ritual. The rites and rituals enshrined in the Vedas are acted out in everyday life. Hinduism offers three paths, i.e., action, knowledge and devotion that lead to or salvation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (Karma). Devotion is considered the superior path with music, dance and theatre as the medium through which the actor and the spectator can reach the Divine. Many plays normally reach an ecstatic climax where the entire audience is transformed into a mass of human souls yearning to reach the Higher Self. The spectators get so involved in the event that they transcend their role of mere spectators and become participants.  Every corner of the country has theatre rooted in the temple tradition. Theatre and the arts originate in religion in many countries, more so in this land of many tongues and a hundred alien invasions.
The farmers, wandering nomads and hill-tribes have no formal training but yet can sing and dance in unison. Music and rhythm flows through their veins. But the temple theatre is a strict and formal ground where the training is long and arduous. There are voluminous texts to be learnt and scriptures to be studied. The royal patrons supported the temple and its art and thus theatre enjoyed a high status. Tradition was enforced and change was strongly discouraged. Dance, music and theatre were an integrated artform.  Mythological stories formed the core of the content. The stories served to teach moral principles, educate and unify the community.


There is no historical evidence of the origin of dance and theatre in India where the arts are considered to be divine blessings and celestial gods like Shiva and Vishnu are the fountainhead of all inspiration. Sanskrit drama developed around 2nd century BC. It was at its peak till 15th century AD . It continued to influence and spawn a dozen regional variations for another three centuries. While Greek and Roman theatre is known to have existed in 6th and 2nd Century BC respectively, it is interesting to observe that Medieval theatre in Europe began around 9th century AD while Noh of Japan, and Chinese Opera were developed in 15th century AD.

3. Important Aspects of Classical Indian Theatre.

a) The Structure of the Play

Bharata’s Natya Sastra dated 2nd or 3rd century BC is the most comprehensive text on theatre. From the architectural aspects of a theatre structure to body movement, music, costume and inner emotional states, the Natya Sastra covers every aspect of performance. These rules are followed uniformly throughout the country with every regional language and customs lending their hue to create an astonishing variety of theatre and dance forms.  There is a vibrant synergy connecting verbal dialogue and vocal music, pure movement and expressive dance, story-telling and dramatics An ensemble (Mela) of musicians, instrumentalists, dancers, actors come together in a performance. In the multifarious cultural scene in India, theatre forms reveal interesting similarity even between geographically and linguistically distanced styles.

Classical Indian dance has three aspects, Nritta, Nritya and Natya. Nritta is pure dance movement which is performed to preset intricate rhythmic patterns in a song or melody. It does not have significance or meaning, but may be used for such a purpose. Nrtya is interpretative dance used when conveying the meaning of the lyrics or content of a song. It involves a codified language of hand gestures and expression of the face. Natya is the dramatic enactment of the story. A theatre or dance form may combine these aspects in varying ratio. For example, Bharata natyam , a solo dance , has nritta and nritya  in equal proportions, while Kathak may have more emphasis on Nrtta or rhythmic movements and some natya. Bhagavata Mela Natakams have an equal proportion of the three aspects. The essence of Kudiyattam is the astonishing use of the eye with minimal movement and music.

b) Aesthetics: The Concept of Rasa.

The most significant contribution of Indian aesthetics is the analysis of the basic eight sentiments; erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious and marvelous and the corresponding the eight emotional states; love, humour, sorrow, anger, valour, terror, disgust and astonishment. There are thirty-three transitory states and five vital involuntary states of the mind; Numbness, horripilation, change of voice, tears and loss of consciousness. Perspiration and change of colour may be included in this list.
The Natya Sastra describes Rasa as the emotional response of the spectator to whole theatre experience. Did the actors convey the story effectively? Was their emoting convincing enough to pull at the heart- strings? The text even compares this experience to that of a gourmet who has been served a fine meal. It is not whether he enjoyed the soup, the main course or the dessert more but what the total experience meant to him. A holistic purview of the theatre experience that the spectator carries with him is Rasa.
c) Literature
The classical theatre uses written scripts, thus generating a vast literature tradition in every language and form. These plays have an array of poems in varied metres that are recited, sung, dance or enacted. The literary structure of these plays imparts a richness and texture to the play and is an important built-in artistic device. The scripts offer historic evidence and much information on the social customs of their times. The playwright includes a mention of his family tree, names of his teachers, the date of writing, and the name of his patron.

*1.This introduction is spoken by the Sutradhar in ‘Sakuntala’ a play in Marathi, written by Ekoji II, a Maratha ruler in Tanjore.

“Sutradhar: Thus commences the play called Sakuntala after praising Chandramouliswara, goddess Bhavani, Khanderayya and all other family deities and praising favourite gods.
With a prayer to Shahendra , here follows a description of the Bhosale lineage.
I bow to you, O Full Moon of the Bhosale family, father Maloji Purandra, Shahji Maharaja, his son Eka Maharaj, whose elder son Shaha  Maharaj and Sarabha Maharaj’s  younger brother, grandson of Dipakambika, Ekoji Maharaja’s work Sakuntala is being presented for the pleasure of all.”
In a play ‘Markandeya’, we have the only evidence of the date of Melattur Venkatrama Sastri  in the introduction.
“ Written in the reign of the great warrior Sri Sivaji (II)…. ”
 d) The Performance- With Particular Reference to Bhagavata Mela Natakam.
While the classical theatre has overlapping functions of devotional, literary presentation and technical achievements, it is invariably a part of ritualistic commemoration. It may not be performed for mere entertainment or profit, but it is part of rituals to propitiate the gods. The rituals are integrated into the performance. For example, many artforms include an onstage appearance of Ganesha (remover of obstacles and therefore worshipped before any life activity by all) in an elephant mask. He dances a blessing and is worshipped with fruits, coconut and flowers and camphor is lit . This burning camphor is    then symbolically shown to the spectators and orchestra. Everyone responds by accepting the flame, muttering a silent prayer and joining the hands above the head in a prayerful attitude. In Bhagavata Mela , the story of a small boy named Prahlada is enacted annually on a fixed day in the village. The story is of the appearance of Vishnu in his incarnation of Narasimha, a man-lion. The actor who portrays this character purifies himself with prayers and fasting before wearing the mask of Narasimha. The mask itself is considered so holy and powerful that it is worshipped in the temple. The spectators bow down to the actor in costume as he makes a dramatic appearance at the climax.  Devotees are also known to commission a performance as thanksgiving for prayers granted and wishes fulfilled.
*1. Originally Tamil speaking, Tanjore was the melting pot of three cultures. The Vijayanagar Nayaks (1565) introduced Tamil and the Marathas (1684-1855) wrote in Marathi. The royalty of both cultures were scholars of music and literature. They encouraged local talent without bias. Shahendra was a king who is considered the first Marathi playwright and hence worthy of salutation.

e) The Performance Area
Bhagavata Mela was earlier performed on the street in front of the temple. Spectators sit in two rows leaving an aisle in the middle. The narrow street had row houses on either side with their open verandahs (sit-out) facing the street. This offered extra seating. With the generally low noise level during the night, sound of music and dialogue carried through to the hundred or so in the audience. The performers and the spectators were on the same level. The musicians stood around the actors. Large oil lamps and blazing torches lit up the performance area. f) The Community
*2 Melattur Bhagavata Mela is a Brahmin tradition. The actors belong to the highest caste whose duties are to interpret Vedas, conduct religious ceremonies, teach and sing the praise of the gods.  Each family dedicates one of the sons to the tradition. In Melattur, only the natives of the village are allowed to participate. The son inherits the roles from the males in the family. These roles become the cherished property of the family.
 The community comes together as one and contributes cash, offer food and welcome visitors in their houses who stayed for the entire festival. The date is fixed on a particular day each year, so the actors and spectators schedule their commitments and ensure that they are present. They are not professional or itinerant groups. All the actors are male so the wives lend their personal dresses and jewelry for their husbands or sons to wear.

g) Preliminaries
The Natya Sastra describes rituals pertaining to the performance like placement of musical instruments, the singers enter and begin warm-up, alignment of drums and musical instruments, dancers warm-up, and then a long complicated drum playing which also serves to indicate to the villagers for miles around that the play is ready to commence.

h) Invocation
Officially, the ‘play’ commences late in the night with invocations to the pantheon of both male and female deities, among whom Ganesha and Indra , (the king of gods and patron of  actors) are important. Many of the verses sung before the actors enter relate to the stage Director (Sutradhar) announcements of the content of the play, description of the playwright, and the thanksgiving to the patron who in most cases is the ruling royalty.

i) Entry
The main protagonist makes his entry with a song. In fact all characters are introduced with a song to which they execute rhythmic steps. These songs are set to rhythmic cycles and are sung in a melody (Raga) most suited to the character’s nature and appearance. The lyrics describe his costume, his manner of walking, the effect his entry has on other beings and Nature, the mannerisms of his entourage and generally indicate whether he is evil, good and noble.

*2. The other three castes in the Hindu social system are Vaishya-merchants, Kshatriyas-warriors, and Sudra-menial workers. Though the government has declared the caste system is invalid, there is discrimination in society on the basis of caste and religion.

*4In the play ‘Prahlada’, the evil demon king Hiranyakashipu’s entry is a good example.

“ Hiranyakashipu entered with a fast gait. Asura(demon) courtiers accompanied him with demonic actions and gestures . The earth trembled with the firm footsteps of the valiant, unrivalled warrior. His face reflected his pride and self- importance. Ministers and generals stood by his side.  The
king rested his arms on their shoulders as he walked majestically. People an all directions extolled his virtues.”

These interludes do nothing to take the story forward, but are the most interesting and establish the status and characteristics of the character. They are important because of the actor dances intricately choreographed rhythmic phrases and uses elaborate interpretation. Such compositions have been handed down from father to son and are valuable heritage to be treasured. Interpretation of a line means dancing the same line about 50 times expanding its meaning each time. It is fascinating to see the dancer intensify his emotions in stages and give several layers of meaning to a single idea. The Bhagavata Mela actors are particularly expert in these passages and a scholarly dancer can truly appreciate the heightened feelings and deep understanding shown by these actors. Some lyrics are sung to rhythms, which vary from slow and medium to fast. Some are sung in a free melody with a slow elaboration. There are prose passages that the Director may speak or appear as dialogue between two characters. This variety offered rich texture and great aural pleasure. There is an air of informality and it is not a slick or sophisticated presentation in the modern sense. The make-up is natural and the costumes reflect the attire of the ruling royalty. There are more than four singers and a dance conductor who actually controls the entire orchestral team and coordinates with the actors. There is a double –faced drum (mridangam) and an Indian lute (Veena) and a flute to accompany and support the singers. The voluminous script and the length of the performance take its toll on the energy and voices of the singers. Thus the play has much to offer to lovers of music, dance and theatre.

After the major characters of a scene enter, the story unfolds. The story is told in elaborate detail and in reference to the context leading to this incident. The actors are trained in the basic technique and are knowledgeable about the scriptures; know music and the lyrics so they improvise on the stage. At times a hero or heroine may take an entire hour to complete  the entry. If it is a dancing heroine, she may use this entry to establish herself as an accomplished dancer and show off her skills and technique. The play lasts all night. When the play ends with the appearance of the relevant god and the sky is pink with the rising sun. Prayers of benediction and thanksgiving are chanted and the actors and musicians go in a procession to the temple.

This translation is taken from Raman Indu: Vanishing Traditions-Bhagavata mela-Special Edition Indian Music Journal, Baroda.
This play is the most significant for Bhagavata Mela  which is found in Tanjore district of southern India. Five villages were granted to the tradition in 1577 by Achyuthappa Nayak, Besides Melattur where there are two groups, Saliyamangalam, and Teperumal Nallur also have annual performances. Each village has a special mask for Narasimha. The scripts are different as is the presentation.The other two villages . Soolamangalam and Oothukadu only perform the rituals.


3. The Changes in Performance Today

The narrow street in front of the temple in Melattur is too narrow and when the crowds became unbearable and suffocating, a well-wisher gifted an acre of land. This also split the troupe into two factions. The original group moved into the open land and build a temporary stage for the annual festival. When the village was connected to electricity the oil lamps went out. There is sound amplification, and the musicians now sit on the left in a long line. Bright incandescent lamps strung in rows light up the stage.
This writer’s association with this group began in 1992 they performed in a modern proscenium theatre in Mumbai. Clearly, they were overwhelmed by the vast stage, enormous but empty theatre, the chill of the air-conditioning, and the absence of identifiable exit and entry points. They had edited the play to accommodate the 120- minute time limit given by the organizers. They were uncomfortable and put up a pitiable performance. But it was the absolutely divine music and the intrinsic talent that shone through.  At their insistence I took up a more formal role in their organization. Research was initiated, regular practice was insisted on and awareness of the formality of performances.was created. We took greater care about the colours and textiles used for costumes. The make-up for female roles was improved and better wigs were procured. Actually, a little guidance went a long way and the actors worked very hard. Till then they performed only once a year. Now more performance opportunities were created and presentations in conferences for scholarly audiences gave them much confidence and made them realize the value of their art.

4. Areas Where Problems Arise.

A.  The time factor.

The plays are performed in the complete version at the village festival. This means approximately five hours as we have seen earlier. When performing outside in proscenium theatre for an urban audience, the play is edited to 120 minutes. What parts of the play gets edited? The grand entry songs, rich interpretative dance elaboration, and the peripheral characters. With this the respective musical compositions, rare melodies, and the intricate rhythmic dance passages are also edited.  Soon these portions will be forgotten and the next generation will be deprived of the pleasure of performing them and viewing them. The three hundred-year old format of the play is shrinking and may become misshapen beyond recognition. Like teeth pulled out randomly, there are gaping holes instead of a beautiful smile. This means a great loss to our dance heritage.

B. Effects of Modernity
The proscenium theatre experience can be seen to bring in uneasy and acute awareness of time, audience response and personal appearance. There is loss of spontaneity and the freedom to improvise. The younger generation is missing out on inspiring role models to emulate. The satellite invasion brings shocking images from across the globe attacks the roots of their simple life and beliefs.
C. Lack of Sophistication

Informed critics claim that traditional dancers compare poorly with professional dancers where technique, polish and presentation is concerned.  The sophisticated technique of the institution- trained dancers raise the expectations of the urban audience But the traditional actor has this innate ability to immerse himself in his role. It is not material gain that has brought him on the stage.  He transforms himself into the role and these strong vibrations evoke great Rasa, spectator response. The seasoned, professional actor’s self-consciousness blocks this spontaneity and involvement. Does this indicate that the actor’s traditional inheritance and basic mind-set works for more real theatre?
D. Dwindling Community
The actors are confined to a small community. These families are growing smaller and modern education and better prospects lure sons away from the family tradition. Some do not realize the historical and social value of the art. Peer pressure and fear of ridicule for donning female make-up may be a cause for keeping away from the art.

F. Musicians-financial drain
The musicians of the large orchestra are professional artists. The actors are dependent on them. The fees to be paid to them are a drain on the resources. The Bhagavata mela cannot use recorded music. *5Melattur Bhagavata Mela music is precious heritage that carries the secret links of a grey area of the chronological map of Southern Indian music. The orthodox  style of singing  is difficult and  very few  singers have the energy and ability to hold their own for five hours.

G. Limited Repertoire
There are only 12 plays written in Telegu language by one Bhagavata Mela playwright, Melattur Venkatrama Sastri. An effort to surmount this limiting boundary was made by producing a play in Marathi, the language in which many Bhagavata Nataka plays have been written. It was envisaged that enlarging the repertoire in would create more performing opportunities, a new audience, and re-kindle interest in the art. The event drew a positive response from the public and the press. The government‘s cultural agencies now recognize the scope and potential of the art. Unexpectedly, it also attracted future sponsors .

*5. Melattur was the birth place of many music composers. They were pioneers in original compositions like Shabdams and Swarajatis. There has not been much research or acknowledgement of their contribution to Indian music.

4.Other Similar Artforms: How do they cope?

Kutiyattam was once the preserve of the Chakyars and Nangiars , an orthodox  community of Kerala. The performance was strictly performed in the temple theatre known as ‘Kutambalam” to be witnessed only by the Brahmins and royalty. This art form is entirely in Sanskrit, and Prakrit. Some of the scenes use the local language, Malayalam. It is so elaborate and stylized that it attracted only the learned and intellectual scholars. Kutiyattam is now performed in theatres and in kutambalams not connected to templesTemple coffers have dwindled and today there are rarely any performances in the Kutambalams. . Many of the present actors do not necessarily belong to this community so a newer, younger generation is being trained. A training institution, which has a research bureau and annual festivals has helped to revive this art. Most performers have to turn to other means of livelihood if there are no performances. Most urban art lovers are treated to fragmented scenes in public performances that limit performance time to 60 or 90 minutes.

The Brahmin males-only dance theatre of Andhra is today better known as a solo dance form.
 the art was languishing, a senior guru threw open the bastions of the art and declared that women and any one else can learn and perform this art. Today it has survived as a solo art though there are dance drama performances too. In fact, sometimes women dancers don male roles !

Ankiya Nat:
The temple dance tradition was created in the 15th century as an expression of devotion by Sankaradeva. Originated in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, Ankiya Nat (literally one-act play) has neither ventured outside its state, nor has ambitions to be recognized as a performing art. But it is practiced on a regular basis in its native state. Unk\like the other forms, this theatre has an elaborate mis-en-scene and use larger than life props to denote trees, mountains etc.

 It has a continued tradition of over 400 years and is performed in the open fields at night with fire torches for lighting. The actors wear striking red, yellow, black, and green costumes with a splendid headdress and stylized make-up. Dr. K. Shivarama Karanth worked to bring cohesion to the performance and his research has contributed enormously towards the amelioration of the dance theatre form. The several existing troupes have been fortunate to receive help from the state and the central government besides invitations to perform abroad.

*6. There are two Centres for Kudiyattam in Kerala. Ammanur Madhava Chakyar , the oldest guru teaches at Natanakairali, Irinjalakuda. Margi in Trivandrum is a later offshoot with most of the teachers trained by Madhava Chakyar. It is not confined to the Chakyar community, but Chakyar youngsters are being encouraged to come back into the fold by G.Venu, Director, Natanakairali.


 The elaborate mask make-up and bejeweled crowns are immediately identified anywhere in the world. Among the first of Indian performing arts to be appreciated worldwide, Kathakali was traditionally a male bastion. A single scene from the epics can last a whole night.  The only lighting was a large oil lamp in the front of the performing area. The combination of drums, slow poignant music and elaborate mimetic interpretation transports the viewer to a world of magic and fantasy. Kerala Kalamandalam was set up early last century to revive and preserve many art forms of this area. Today women actors take on both male and female roles. The urban performances feature just one episode or one character from a play on any kind of platform under neon and electric lights. The art continues to flourish both at home and globally, but this overexposure sometimes results in jaded performances with little merit or aesthetic fulfillment.

5. What loss of indigenous culture can mean. A Westerner’s view.
I met Peter and Inger, authorities of theatre from Sweden, at the Kudiyattam Center Natana kairali, Irinjalakuda, Kerala. Peter had worked with World Theatre where the cast comprises actors from India, China, Africa, Sweden and Germany. They were there to coordinate with Kudiyattam theatre and attend an International workshop. Reproduced below is a verbatim excerpt from a taped interview where Peter speaks of the problems of trying to find one’s roots. I asked Peter what brings him to study other cultures in this journey.
Peter says,”
We try to understand our culture better. It is hard enough. Especially if you are a westerner. So many of our traditions are gone. Or broken. Or only on paper. Not body to body as the guru and pupil who are making the tradition alive. But of course, the others also wanted to develop their own, but for a Chinese actor the question was how can we come out of an old tradition that was come to stagnation? Where it is not any longer communicating with the audience. It is only a forum. What can we learn from the others? Africa had been occupied for 500 years. Not a similar situation as in India because you kept your culture. But in Mozambique language was forbidden, religion was forbidden and so on for 500 years. It is a very long time. *7You were saying here that theatre here lost its power for an intermission of 60-80 years. But 500 years! So they tried to find out. What is our roots? What is our culture? If we see beyond these 500 years of European influence can we make a theatre tradition that is built on our own? Because it was a splendid culture. So when they meet Indian Kudiyattam theatre they could have a kind of vision of how their theatre could have been, if there was one. Then there are elements of course. They have the dance, they have the music, costumes, rituals… Many things that survived. From these fragments they are trying to put something together. As we are doing.

*7. There was a discussion of the Devadasi Act in pre-independence India when the British ruled that all dance in temples and all payment to such artists be stopped.

The natural living with religion is very difficult in so called developed countries. Even if the longing is there. But many don’t find a forum for this longing for wholeness. We do things like New Age  and coming to India….”

“We had some golden ages in Western Theatre history. Greek theatre, Shakespeare theatre, for example. But no one can say how did they act on the Shakespearean stage. We know very little about it. Could you imagine if you wrote down a text from a Kudiyattam play? Only the text? 10 lines for six hours? And that was all that remained? What would you do ? Even if you had the manuals for acting and direction, it would be very difficult to reconstruct if  that was the only thing you had and did not have a guru. Kudiyattam has changed , of course, in the past years, but the guru can tell with a 90% accuracy how an actor acted in the 16th century. Remember, Greek theatre is 4th century BC!”

6. Why Revive?
A performance of a new play in Bombay in January (2002) this year raised many questions and *8 some informed critics and influential connoisseurs struck at the very roots of the immense and important revival efforts. Excerpts:
1. “It is the common people that these dramas address, their express purpose being to familiarize the general populace with the legends and their lessons in moral and ethical values.”
 Art lovers must learn to respect the traditional artist for the contribution of his art to the country’s culture. This is a matter of concern to all heritage lovers.
2. Many of the viewers were left wondering why Bhagavata Mela natakams had to be staged at all even if their themes are non-religious.
According to this writer, creating awareness of the artform is of the highest priority. Many forget that these artists have made many sacrifices and preserved the art not for material gain but with a sense of responsibility.
3. “Would the offering have been better in a local temple or as part of annual festivals?”
This is a vanishing tradition and it was expected that serious art lovers would sit up and take cognizance of what the culture is losing. The purpose of holding these performances in a city is the hope that enlightened critics and scholars will come forward to encourage and support the efforts positively. This is not mere entertainment for groups of illiterate audiences-in-transit.

4. ‘Perhaps traditional Bhagavata Mela can be led through a transformation with stagings outside the temple precincts taking on the character of an art form rather that of a religious rite.’

These comments seem to miss the forest for the trees. It is possible to perform the religious rites only in the village. The devotional fervour will come through only in the village ambience which takes on a special festive air during the annual festival. The exercise of bringing the artists to perform outside is to garner support and sponsorship. Thousands of spectators would not have been able to view this dance-theatre if they did not perform in cities. They need recognition and acceptance from society and through them from the government agencies.

*8 See Sruti Issue 213, May 2002
7. Possible Solutions for Survival

After studying the options chosen by other arts in the same classification, we can conclude that there are indeed choices, but will they destroy the essence of Bhagavata Mela?

1. One solution is to open the doors for all communities and women at the risk of destroying the religious sanctity for propagation of the art. A training school that will teach the music, dance and the theatre to all must be established. These students could be used for performances outside the village.
2. The urban performances must be edited but the village performances should be complete in all respect.  Only traditional performers should participate .This will ensure that the tradition is carried on.
3. Documentation of the performances by senior artists will ensure that the original choreography is preserved for future reference.
4. Music must be recorded in a studio with modern equipment. The music must also be written down in notation.
5. A research bureau should be constituted to collect photographs, information, tape interviews and collect manuscripts, books and memorabilia for reference.
6. Private sponsors may not support what does not generate publicity for their brands. Therefore cultural clubs, central and state government agencies should be requested to fund the efforts.


1.    Richmond/Swann/Zarrilli- “Indian Theatre Traditions of Performance” Motilal Banarsidass –1993
2.    Raman Indu-“Bhagavata Mela-Vanishing Traditions” Special Edition, Indian Music Journal, Baroda.
3.    Wilson Edwin ‘The Theatre Experience”-Mcgraw-Hill Book Co. 1976
4.    Vatsyayan Kapila : Traditional Indian Theatre : National Book Trust, 1980
5.    Raman Indu : Editor, Commemmorative Issue , Bhagavata Mela Nataka Utsav-Mumbai 2002.


This was my contribution to the research project of the International Dance Council held in Corfu, Greece in April 2002. The World Congress on Dance Research published an anthology of features written by eminent professionals for their book  entitled ‘Intangible Heritage.’